Autonomous Vehicle Policy Guide Sets Standards for Public Safety

May/June 2018

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
Autonomous Vehicle Policy Guide Sets Standards for Public Safety


Autonomous VehicleTo promote and protect the public health, safety, and welfare in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technologies, NSPE released a policy guide on March 6 that provides public policy decision makers, regulators, manufacturers, and others with guidelines to measure the safety readiness of autonomous vehicles.

There has been considerable discussion in both the public and private sectors about the safety of autonomous vehicles and the need to create standards. However, up until this point, there has not been a single policy document that addresses all standards. Recognizing the need for such a policy guide and given NSPE’s unique role in promoting the competent and ethical practice of engineering across industry, NSPE’s Autonomous Vehicles Task Force developed “Autonomous Vehicles: A Public Regulatory Policy Guide” to accelerate the dialogue.

With the introduction of autonomous vehicles, automation is poised to become a much larger part of the transportation environment. Much of the discussion to date has addressed the technology, its capabilities, and the perceived public benefits. However, many questions remain unanswered by industry, which has led to uncertainty within the public regulatory environment.

To address this uncertainty, NSPE proposes 12 outcome-based standards in the following areas as a starting point for adopting requirements that protect public safety:

  1. Risk assessment
  2. Ethics compliance disclosure
  3. Self-sufficiency
  4. Accountability
  5. Third-party verification
  6. Redundancy
  7. Map standardization
  8. Security
  9. Training/operational licensing
  10. Maintain manual controls
  11. Safety features
  12. Vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity

NSPE’s goal is to encourage public and private stakeholders to meaningfully collaborate more closely to facilitate the safe and successful implementation of AV technology for the public’s benefit.

NSPE has taken its message to Congress, the Department of Transportation, state DMVs, state societies, and leading industry associations to take a comprehensive and informed approach to the testing, development, and deployment of autonomous vehicles, incorporating the key role of the licensed professional engineer.

The recent tragic pedestrian fatality in Arizona in March 2018—the first fatal crash involving a fully autonomous vehicle—underscores the essential need to ensure that standards addressing the major safety, technological, and ethical implications of autonomous vehicles are codified in federal and state legislation and regulations to mitigate future accidents.

In 2017, Congress worked to pass comprehensive autonomous vehicle legislation. The bills, H.R. 3388 and S.B. 1885, would make the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration responsible for regulating self-driving cars, preempting state and local standards. This legislation would allow automakers to deploy autonomous vehicles without first properly addressing the major safety, technological, and ethical implications. NSPE therefore opposed the legislation. The House of Representatives passed its version of the legislation, H.R. 3388, the SELF DRIVE Act. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed a separate but similar version, but the Senate has not yet held a full vote, in part due to advocacy efforts expressing concerns about the public safety implications of enacting legislation without first incorporating proper outcome-based safety standards such as those set forth in NSPE’s “Autonomous Vehicles: A Public Regulatory Policy Guide.”

Over the last several years, NSPE has also proactively engaged with the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as it establishes initial federal guidelines governing the testing, development, and deployment of autonomous vehicles. NSPE has provided public comment on the first two versions of the guidelines, issued in 2016 and 2017. The third version is expected to be released later in 2018. NSPE has expressed concern to NHTSA that the most recent version, A Vision for Safety, explicitly focuses on how to enable manufacturers to accelerate deployment rather than strengthen standards. NSPE has submitted the newly released policy guide to the Department of Transportation to consider for incorporation into its anticipated next version of federal guidelines for autonomous vehicles. The Department of Transportation convened a meeting in early March and opened a formal docket requesting input as it develops the newest version of federal guidelines, known as Autonomous Vehicles 3.0.

Public safety should be paramount in developing and deploying fully autonomous vehicles. Professional engineers have a critical role to play in ensuring that the same attention to safety and reliability that went into the built transportation infrastructure is incorporated into autonomous vehicles. NSPE urges professional engineers to share this policy guide with policymakers and the public at all levels.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE’s associate director of government relations and advocacy.